Egyptian director Magdy Ahmed Ali’s “Nile Birds is only the second feature based on a work by great Egyptian author Ibrahim Aslan, and the first in 18 years since Daoud Abdel Sayed’s “Kit Kat to reach Egyptian screens.
Aslan’s fans will be relieved to learn that Ahmed Ali has crafted a faithful adaptation of Aslan’s second novel. Unlike “Kit Kat though, which departed conspicuously from the source material, “Nile Birds fails to translate on screen.
Aslan’s themes, expressive dialogue and splendid narrative have been kept intact in the film – which premiered last week at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival – yet Ali eventually loses grip over the sprawling tale, diverging in several directions to diminish the mystique of the early premise. Actor performances range from the commendable to the average; Fathy Abdel Wahab specifically is an erroneous choice for the lead, delivering a performance that verges on the bland.
Set in the humble Nile-side neighborhood of Imbaba over nearly half a century, “Nile Birds centers on Abdel Reheem (Abdel Wahab), a naïve and quirky rural migrant who moves to Cairo with his older sister, Nargis (Dalal Abdel Aziz) and her postman husband Al-Bahey Uthman (Mahmoud El Guindi). Abdel Reheem gains fame in his neighborhood after catching a blue sparrow of the Nile before he reaches the police station where he is subjected to physical assault. The bird is a symbol of both the elusive, unfulfilled dreams of the district’s residents, rendering the incident a symbol of failed rebellion, trampled by forces bigger than ordinary characters.
Abdel Reheem instantly falls in love with Bassima (Abeer Sabry), the mysterious, free-spirited, warmhearted neighborhood beauty. Her headstrong disregard for phony social norms put her at odds not only with the neighborhood as a whole, but also with Abdel Raheem who can’t bring himself to shut out the gossip, ignore his sister’s distrustful looks or accept her desire for independence.
Realizing that Abdel Raheem can never fully trust her, Bassima soon leaves the neighborhood, only to return almost 30 years later.
In the meantime, Abdel Raheem embarks on a series of one night stands and meaningless sexual escapades, betrothals or marriage while holding modest jobs as a civil servant.
Abdel Raheem has no aspirations, no dreams. His sister and brother-in-law are not drastically different. Al-Bahey, who has been forced into retirement five years earlier than scheduled, fights for many years to be compensated for the government’s slipup, and, as a last resort, sends a complaint to the president. As expected, he never receives a response. Narges, on the other hand, has an even more modest wish: to have a light bulb installed in her bedroom when she dies.
Ahmed Ali (“Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe, “A Girl’s Secret ) moves back and forth between the present – when the two elderly, bed-stricken Abdel Raheem and Bassima are reunited – and the past. In general, the narrative is linear, which slightly deviates from Aslan’s elliptical storytelling. Ahmed Ali’s method allows no room for confusion, yet, by adopting such a technique, falls short of mimicking the source material’s memory-driven narrative.
Nonetheless, Ahmed Ali succeeds in preserving the spirit of Aslan’s novel. “Nile Birds is the story of marginalized Egyptians, leading inconsequential lives and dying an inconsequential death. They have no purpose but to simply survive; to raise another generation that will live the exact same life. They rarely complain, mainly because they lost the will to do so. Through the generations, Abdel Raheem’s family looks after a piece of land that is continuously divided between inheritors until it’s completely lost. Each generation passes the burden of taking claim of the land to the next; no one wants to take responsibility.
Ahmed Ali commits two major errors that radically reduce the impact of Aslan’s themes: devising the story in the form of an epic and depicting his characters as victims of a corrupt and hypocritical social and political system.
The initial focus of the film is Abdel Raheem, his affairs, dysfunctional relationships and his numerous failures. Gradually, the narrative spreads out to include more characters, many of whom, such as Narges’ son, Abdalla, add nothing much to the drama. Ahmed Ali’s insistence to cover all of Aslan’s characters overcrowds his plot; his characters end up fighting for attention. Throughout the film, Ahmed Ali seems to be constantly grappling with two contrasting tones: the grandiose and the intimate.
The final result lies somewhere between the two: the gush of characters in the final part, coupled with an expansion of scope to encompass additional, if insubstantial, details like the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s (the era where the film is set is never identified), tatters the fabric of the story.
The victimization approach that Ahmed Ali employs to draw sympathy for his characters doesn’t work either. Most characters in the film are passive; none of them dares to rebel or seek a better future. Abdel Raheem is the anti-hero par excellence. His life-long preoccupation is sex, every decision he takes, including marriage and having kids, is directly informed by his sex-starved alter-ego. Unlike Sheikh Hosny from “Kit Kat, he has no guiding philosophy, no regrets.
The way I see it, Abdel Raheem is a victim of his own apathy and weakness. As Egyptians, we love playing the victim and the martyrs of tyranny. The reality is, we’re not, and neither is Abdel Raheem.
Fathy Abdel Wahab, channeling the great Egyptian actor Shoukry Sarhan sans charisma, fails to carry the weight of the character. He has proven to be a stellar supporting actor through previous roles, but as a lead, he lacks the kind of presence to fill the screen.
However, Abdel Aziz and El Guindi carry themselves with admirable ease. And despite the unevenness of her performance, Sabry could be the real discovery of the film, playing Bassima with a mix of sassiness and vulnerability. Her moving turn about 30 minutes into the film, embodying a ghost of Bassima’s former self, sees some of the best acting of her career. But her up-town dialect occasionally gets in the way of immersing herself fully into her character.
Some critics saw “Nile Birds as a hymn to Cairo’s marginalized millions and to their thwarted dreams; others saw it as a philosophical fable about the absurdity of existence. For me, it’s a testament to the impotence of a nation, of a generation plagued with intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The real hero, and perhaps victim, is Al-Bahey who emerges as a quixotic figure fighting relentlessly for his unattainable rights; but he’s a lone man, surrounded by nothing more than clan of muted marionettes.